January 02, 2007
IED blast forces new chapter in lives of survivors

By Gregg Zoroya
USA Today

The long shrapnel scar on the face of 1st Lt. Charles Bies marks the day last March when his life changed forever.

Shortly before midnight March 6, the Humvee he was riding in snapped a trip wire and detonated a roadside bomb outside Tal Afar, Iraq. The improvised explosive device was planted by insurgents.

The blast killed Pfc. Ricky Salas Jr., the man next to Bies. Like hundreds of other IED attacks in Iraq that end in death, it changed countless other lives as well. For every soldier or Marine killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq and Afghanistan, 10 are hurt. The weapons have killed more than 1,000 troops and wounded 11,200 in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The blast that killed Salas left four other soldiers with wounds, physical or emotional, that may never heal.

It severed the left leg of Army Spc. Jose “Jay” Morales, 24, whose dream since childhood was to be a soldier and whose pregnant wife had known him for less than a year before he went to war.

Army Spc. Nicholas “Nick” Helfferich, 22, was manning a machine gun in the Humvee’s turret when the blast threw him into the air. It smashed his pelvis and ribs, damaged a lung and his liver, and permanently crippled his spine. “My whole body was just, like, ringing,” he recalls.

The vehicle flipped over, trapping Bies inside the wreckage. He says his life today is neatly divided into two emotional chapters: one before the bomb and one after.

Sgt. Martin Duculan found himself pinned under Morales and Salas. Though the blast left no visible wounds, psychological scars remain.

“I know how to control my emotions,” he said in a recent e-mail from Iraq, where he remains in combat in Ramadi. “But I still cannot control a few tears that roll down my cheek when I tell this story.”

The list of the 3,000 troops who have died in Iraq since the war began doesn’t account for the other casualties, those who barely escaped death and must live with the physical and emotional scars of war. This is the story of the soldiers who survived the IED that killed Ricky Salas.

Inside the Humvee

In the moments after the explosion, Staff Sgt. Jason Snell, 31, of Bethlehem, Pa., directed rescue efforts as soldiers from two tanks rushed to give aid. Salas was dead in the Humvee. Morales lay bleeding atop Duculan. Pinned inside the wreckage, Bies could barely move. Helfferich writhed in pain on the ground nearby.

Soldiers tended to Helfferich and pulled Morales and Duculan and the body of Salas from the Humvee. Snell ordered that chains be attached to a tank to right the vehicle and free Bies.

“The whole time this was going on, I wanted to scream, throw up and run away. But I was the person in charge. I couldn’t let my soldiers see me falter,” Snell says. “I still smell the blood to this day sometimes.”

Duculan walked away, uninjured but shaken. A medevac helicopter arrived in minutes to carry Morales, Helfferich and Bies — and Salas’ body — to the nearest hospital.

Within hours, Morales was placed on a medevac flight leaving Iraq. Bies was flown out a day later and Helfferich within several days.

Before heading to a hospital in Germany, Morales gently pulled an attending nurse’s hand to his lips and kissed it gratefully. His voice dry and hoarse, he motioned for a piece of paper and scrawled a note: “I don’t want to leave my platoon.”

Morales struggles to walk

Morales, of Port Washington, N.Y., suffered the worst injuries of those who survived. After nine months of convalescence, rehabilitation and physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he still struggles to walk with his prosthesis. “It’s very hard because my stump and my leg are very short,” he says.

A greater worry, he says, is the financial future facing him, his wife, Jennifer, and their 8-month-old son, Jayden. Although some amputees remain in the Army, Morales is increasingly fearful he will be forced into medical retirement at age 25.

“I’m running out of ideas,” he says with urgency. “I’m running out of ways to try and figure out about how I’m going to support my family.”

He has received $50,000 in a military insurance payout for the loss of his leg. His Army income is less than $20,000 a year.

If her husband is medically retired, Jennifer Morales says she is uncertain what the Department of Veterans Affairs or military retirement could provide. She says it could be as little as $15,000 to $20,000 per year. Jose Morales knows the VA offers vocational training. But he says he has no plans yet because his focus has always been the Army.

His mother, Lucila Lopez-Torrez, brought him to the U.S. from his native El Salvador at age 13. She cleaned houses on Long Island to support her only child. Morales joined the Army in 2000. He hopes to be granted citizenship soon, a process that could be expedited because of his service.

“I’ll tell you I’m more American than the people down in the street,” he said from his hospital bed last spring.

Lopez-Torrez, 44, says the stress of seeing her son maimed by war has led to insomnia, high blood pressure, depression and, finally, hospitalization several weeks ago for what she feared was a heart attack. She had collapsed while cleaning someone’s house. When it happened, she says, the owner called an ambulance. Doctors told her it wasn’t a heart attack but severe anxiety.

“My son has changed,” she says. “He’s not the boy who laughed like he used to. He’s hurting a lot.”

In November, Jennifer Morales, 22, suffered several days of facial paralysis from Bell’s palsy brought on by stress, doctors told her.

“I looked into the mirror and my face was, like, hanging down,” she recalls.

Life is so different now, she says. They married Dec. 16, 2005, and her husband left for war three weeks later. They had never lived together.

Today, they share a suite of apartments for wounded soldiers and their families at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and are scheduled to move to a military rehabilitation center in Texas this month.

Jennifer Morales says when they go to a shopping mall, she notices how people stare and children turn to their parents to ask what happened to that man in the wheelchair.

“Even in this [residence] house, the women who have husbands with arms and legs ask me how it is, ‘Isn’t it weird for you to have sexual contact with your husband?’ Stuff like that,” Jennifer says. “That hurts. Those are stupid questions.”

Dealing with chronic pain

Scott Helfferich, 51, a park police officer from Westmoreland County outside Pittsburgh, saw his oldest boy, Nicholas, learn to walk again several weeks after the blast.

“I just remember his throwing the crutches down and saying, ‘I don’t need these damn things.’ And then it became very emotional for our family,” the father says. “He looked at me and he smiled. And it was the first time in a while that I had actually seen him smile.”

Helfferich, who is still in the Army, has not healed. He suffers chronic back pain and discomfort in his pelvis and fears it may never go away. He awaits word of a medical retirement from the military. Helfferich dreams of opening a bar and grill in his native Latrobe, Pa., though he is not sure how he will pay for it. He may go to college.

Once a proud body builder whose idol was Arnold Schwarzenegger — and who earned the nickname Hellboy in his platoon — Helfferich now lives a more sedentary life and misses the body that defined him before the blast.

“I used to be really ripped. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” he says. “[The blast] changed my life, because I realized that people were trying to kill me and they didn’t. But they hurt me for the rest of life. They got the best of me. I’m going to be suffering the rest of my life. But I’m not going to let that bring me down.”

Tour extended in Iraq

Duculan and Bies remain in combat in Iraq.

“The memories of that event will be with me the rest of my life,” Duculan says.

Their year of duty in Iraq was supposed to end this month. But it was extended several weeks because of the Army’s need for additional combat troops. Last year, their unit was shifted from Tal Afar to Ramadi, where the fighting is more intense. The platoon may come home in February or March.

Bies, who survived a second roadside bomb blast Oct. 7, relived that night outside Tal Afar in nightmares for months. In waking moments, he second-guessed himself.

“You start playing ‘what if’ with yourself: ‘What if we’d left an hour earlier or if we’d left an hour later?’” Bies says in a phone interview from Iraq. “‘What if we’d done something different that night? What if someone else had been driving?’ ... I guess you could call it survivor’s guilt.”

In his second IED experience, Bies and five other soldiers fled a burning armored vehicle and raced to safety under gunfire. That is a good war story, Bies says.

By contrast, the first blast, the one that killed Ricky Salas, was profound.

“I measure my life in two parts, and it was before this and after it,” Bies says, “All of the sudden, you grow up and you’re not invincible any more. You’re 24. You’re in Iraq. And something like that happens. It makes you realize, ‘Hey, I may not live to see 25 or 26.’”

Alan Gomez contributed to this story.